By Charlie Anderson and Lori Meadows

A mainstay for Oregon youth for 60 years, Outdoor School is at risk of becoming an endangered species. Providing high-quality, place-based science education gives our kids hands-on, outdoor educational experiences that not only teach future generations to value and respect the land but also let people learn about themselves and others in the process.

Today, surviving Outdoor School programs remain true to their roots, engaging thousands of fifth- and sixth-graders with nature and using hands-on field science to teach them about Oregon’s natural resources. Despite the enormous success of many of Oregon’s Outdoor School programs, budget cuts and unstable funding have created a situation where half our students are denied the opportunity to attend and benefit from the invaluable experience of a full week in the outdoors. Bend-La Pine, Redmond and Madras have had their Outdoor School programs cut for many years, and some have only recently returned to a 21⁄2-day program. In Crook County, the community embraced a six-year grant and fundraising effort to keep its rich 58-year tradition alive — a rite of passage that has enriched and inspired the lives of many generations of students from Crook County.

Outdoor School changes lives. Children develop invaluable self-confidence and resiliency, along with leadership, critical thinking and social skills. Outdoor experiences are proven to help children learn better, understand how natural systems work and realize their potential to make themselves more self-sufficient and go on to thrive in their college and career paths.

In 2010, the National Wildlife Federation released a study showing children spend an average of 53 hours a week indoors watching TV, being on their phones and playing video games. A study published in the journal Computers in Human Behaviour by the University of California, Los Angeles, in 2014 found that sixth-graders who spent five days at an outdoor education camp without exposure to technology were significantly better at reading human emotions than kids who had regular access to technology.

At a time when children are spending five to seven hours a day in front of a screen, Outdoor School is an opportunity to give kids a break from video games and screen time, to get outdoors to experience Oregon’s abundant natural resources firsthand. We know — when we are able to connect kids with nature, they become mentally and physically healthier.

Senate Bill 439 and House Bill 2648 would establish a state Outdoor School Education Fund to provide full and equitable access to Outdoor School for students across the state. These bills don’t require schools to create programs or fund them, but rather provide $22 million of funding to send every sixth-grader in the state to a full week of Outdoor School. They would designate Oregon State Extension Service to administer and direct the statewide program and ensure funding goes to high-quality, science-based Outdoor School programs.

Our legislators need to know full and stable funding for Outdoor School is a top priority for voters in Central Oregon and our children. Teachers and administrators from across Central Oregon, including Jackie LaFrenz, Powell Butte Charter School; Gail Harrower, Redmond Obsidian Middle School; Rachael Ryan, Jefferson Middle School; and Alyce Pearce, Outdoor School coordinator for Central Oregon Environmental Center, are asking legislators to support funding for Outdoor School.

You can help make Outdoor School available to all. Contact your legislators. Ask them to support the Outdoor School bills to ensure this invaluable program continues to inspire Oregonians for generations to come. For more information, go to www.outdoorschoolforall.org.

— Charlie Anderson, Camp Tamarack director, and Lori Meadows, sixth-grade teacher and outdoor school director for Crook County Middle School.

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